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Playing It Safe in Peoria

President Obama hasn’t been subtle in his political symbolism. Need to sell a massive stimulus bill to Congress? Visit some of the most economically depressed places in the country, each representing a different face of the American economy, and occasionally answer questions from the desperately unemployed.

Monday was Elkhart, Ind., an exemplar of the decline of America’s rusty economic past. Elkhart was the RV capital of the world. It now has a double-digit unemployment rate.

Tuesday was Fort Myers, Fla., representing the swathes of the country built up during America’s recent debt-binge. It saw the spectacular Southwestern Florida housing bubble burst a few years ago, wrecking the local economy and, a little later, playing its part in wrecking the country’s.

And today was Peoria, Ill., home of the job-shedding Caterpillar Inc., which produces heavy earth movers and other such equipment. The town, Obama said, is hurting because America is “standing still,” instead of erecting new homes, offices or schools. Presumably a lot more earth will need moving after his stimulus bill passes, which was the point.

But nearly absent from Obama’s remarks was anything about the sector of the economy Peoria really represents. Maybe because it’s the one that some Democrats seem determined to undermine: exports.

Before the global downturn, which creamed demand in the developing world, Cat raked in fat profits selling abroad, even as its domestic business contracted. The company derived 60 percent of its revenue from outside North America in its booming fourth quarter of 2007. Observers wrote about a renaissance of American manufacturing at Caterpillar and other firms oriented towards selling high-value-added goods in foreign countries.

Obama’s latest stop should have served as a vivid warning to policymakers eager to roll back America’s commitment to free trade, of which there are distressingly many in Congress right now, who would dare other countries to raise barriers to Cat’s goods and those of other American firms. Just what Peoria needs right now.

Of course, free traders can only hope Obama meant for the symbolism to be that full. Because he hasn’t done much to clarify his position on free trade, either during the campaign, in which he left himself acres of wiggle room on the matter, or any time since. And, judging by his speech today, Obama isn’t keen to start -- even if it means he only tells perhaps 40 percent of the story.

By Stephen Stromberg  | February 12, 2009; 9:56 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Who's correct? In his remarks, Obama stated that Caterpillar's CEO said the stimulus plan would permit Caterpillar to re-employ laid-off workers, but then the CEO contradicted Obama by saying that more layoffs probably would occur. Would advise Obama to end the frenetic flights on Air Force One, to present a calm demeanor instead of constant "doom and gloom" predictions, read the stimulus bill, and then explain the bill in realistic terms instead of platitudes. To date, he's demonstrated no leadership on what's ballyhooed to be the "signature legislation" of his administration.

Posted by: judithod | February 13, 2009 12:00 AM | Report abuse

Ya know when I was a kid Zenith (American made) was a premium brand TV, Panasonic was an American company, steel came from Pittsburg not China, and you bought North Carolina furniture. All of that manufacturing power has been replaced by cheap imports at the cost of millions of American jobs and thousands of American communities. Explain to me again how saving a few bucks on a DVD player makes that all OK?

Posted by: MarcMyWords | February 13, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Well, the stimulus plan seems like a good idea, but America is broke! So the cost of the stimulus bill is a little risky. On the other hand, Obama just wants the companies to keep their jobs. Eventhough times are hard, at least he's trying to find a way to make people keep our jobs.

Posted by: ChaniquaF | February 13, 2009 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Who's got the ball, who's looking after America and America's sickness? Where are our political leaders? The pres... out spreading the gospel. Nancy and Harry... focused on their party's upcomming party. Cabinet (who are they anyway?), spending too much time playing CYA and blowing smoke to see the highway washout ahead. House and Senate... when has this group ever been seen doing for America? Raum, and Blago...please not.

Posted by: russmart | February 14, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

We ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto...The World economy has changed and the United States is in deep doo doo adjusting. Where this all will end is anybody's guess but expecting a return to the heady days when the good ol' USA was on top of the heap and controlling all the shots is a waste of time. Politicians focus on re-election so they pander to their consituency rather than dealing with the realities at hand. Each and every American has a responsibility to make personal adjustments, to adapt to the world as it is instead of expecting Government to return us to times gone by. Essentially, this is but the beginning. It is a world economy with world wide communications and every person everywhere wants his/her share. There are limited resources and too many people...Anyone read Future Shock back in the late 1960's? It is upon us and there's no turning back.

Posted by: geocollins | February 16, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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